Local Heroes Ida's Village Stores in Charmouth Dorset
PUBLISHED: 15:56 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
Continuing his series focussing on stores at the heart of their community, Michel Hooper-Immins pops in to Ida's Village Stores, in Charmouth.
Charmouth is best known for fossils, the Dorset Jurassic Coast yielding some of the best prehistoric treasures during frequent rockfalls. The village still has a Post Office, newsagent, chemist, baker, butcher and two pubs.
The permanent population of around 1,000 is swelled fourfold or more during the summer. Halfway along The Street - a simple name for the main road - is the delightfully old-fashioned Ida's Village Stores. This many-faceted family enterprise has quite a few surprises within the 1930s single-storey building.
Bridport-born Val grew up in the Marshwood Vale. While working in London as a telex operator, she met Jim Hatcher, then Freight Marketing Manager at British Rail's Euston headquarters. He had begun his 17 years on the railways at Retford as junior parcels clerk. They married 30 years ago and eventually moved to Jim's home city of Nottingham. Interests in antiques and bookselling became a business, dealing in books, postcards and cigarette cards. Later Jim became a business centre manager, while Val helped run Nottingham's popular Lace Museum. Seven years ago, fate intervened when they were both made redundant. "I always wanted to return to West Dorset," Val told me, "so we looked round for a business and found what was then called Bragg's Store for sale. I knew Charmouth well - the right place with bags of potential." In 2006, the name changed to Ida's Village Stores, honouring Val's late mother Ida Woodman from nearby Fishpond.
The sale contract included a condition to sell a national chain's branded products for four years, but they steadily increased the stock of local food and drink, building up the quality trade which villagers much appreciated. Although Val and Jim had no direct experience of grocery, they learned quickly with the help of five part-time staff. "It's much more than a full-time job; long hours in the shop, then paperwork in the evenings," says Val. "We open seven days a week, even in winter, but we love it. July and August are so busy, they pass in a blur!"
Just before Christmas, they supported the newly formed Charmouth Traders Association's first late-evening opening initiative. A tasting of the powerful Lyme Bay wines certainly helped the festive atmosphere!
Once the branded goods tie expired in 2006, they bought in yet more local products, undoubtedly the key to success. Today, 70% to 80% of the stock hails from Dorset or Devon. Bread comes from the 100-year-old Charmouth Bakery, owned by Roger and Lisa Seed for four years, who craft a good selection of bread, cakes and pastries.
I was mightily impressed by the comprehensive selection of bottled beer - a real West Country ale odyssey including my favourite 200 strong ale from Palmers at Bridport, Blandford Fly from Hall & Woodhouse, Drayman's Best Bitter from Branscombe, Cotleigh Peregrine Porter from Wiveliscombe, Doom Bar from Sharps in Cornwall, Otter Head from near Honiton and Port Stout from O'Hanlons at Whimple.
While looking at the crowded shelves, I came across Camp coffee - an old staple I'd not seen for years. Rows of own-label treats, specially packed in Cornwall, seriously tempt the taste buds. They include whole dried figs, apple rings and desiccated coconut. Organic cream-of-spinach and spicy-parsnip soups come from Rod & Ben at Exeter. Fruit and veg travel from Cains Farm at Chideock, just down the road. Organic vegetables are from Fivepenny Farm at Wootton Fitzpaine, who also bottle pure apple juice. In the cheese cabinets, I found smoked Stilton, Somerset Camembert and Denhay mature Cheddar. I sampled the Divine white chocolate with strawberries. The Divine company sources Fairtrade cocoa beans only from a smallholders' co-operative in Ghana. A more local novelty is chocolate ammonites from Choco-rassics at Uplyme. Again from Devon is honey from Ken and Dan Basterfield's beehives at Ottery St Mary.
In the back of the store is a treasure house of local arts and crafts. The striking woven willow is fashioned by talented Jenny Knight from Combpyne. Charmouth girl Rosemary Lock makes candles and Sarah Cooke, another local lady, spins wool at home.
The shop frontage is covered in unusual perennials, grown by Ray Smith a few hundred yards away. Customers relax in the peaceful atmosphere of the coffee shop, where Val heats up pies and soup, makes bespoke sandwiches and indeed serves anything sold in the shop - on a plate! The refreshing tea is Clipper Fairtrade from Beaminster, the coffee from the Dorset Coffee Company at Puddletown. The couple's bookselling experience comes in useful with a splendid selection of secondhand books. I'm delighted to see so many railway books, but all tastes are covered, including cookery and local-interest volumes. Plastic bags are discouraged, so Ida's Village Stores' own cotton bags are popular, featuring the local Dorset violet.
As we chatted, a stream of customers came and went. Val and Jim know most by their christian names: "We want to maintain the happy community atmosphere. We're always looking for more local food, drink, arts and crafts," they say. Children Ellie and Jack both work in the shop when schoolwork allows. Last year was very difficult for Val Hatcher, with cancer being diagnosed. Now in remission, she is again able to throw her considerable energies into Ida's Village Stores. "When I was ill, there were over a 100 get-well cards - everybody here is so friendly. Charmouth is a wonderful community. We meet so many nice people every day and get a real kick out of it when they enjoy shopping here. Many say it's really different to other retailers."
Ida's Village Stores, The Street, Charmouth
DT6 6PX. (01297 560252). Open 7.30am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, 8am to 5pm Sundays.
"We open seven days a week, even in winter, but we love it. July and August are so busy, they pass in a blur!"